from The Wisconsin State Journal, October 18, 2005
A university committee wants UW-Madison to stop doing business with apparel companies unless those companies agree to buy at least a portion of their goods from union factories.
The action, taken Monday by the university's nine-member Labor Licensing Policies Committee, ratchets up student efforts to stop sweatshop abuses in companies that make campus trademark apparel, such as Bucky Badger T-shirts.
The 9-0 committee recommendation now goes to Chancellor John Wiley, who will make the final decision. Dawn Crim, interim special assistant to Wiley, said she did not have a timeline for when he will make his decision.
UW-Madison junior Joel Feingold, a student member of the labor committee, called Wiley "a fundamentally good guy who cares passionately about the issue." However, Feingold said he knows Wiley will be lobbied hard by UW- Madison business graduates who now lead major apparel companies.
"The question becomes whether we can exercise enough influence over him," Feingold said.
The labor committee, made up of three faculty members, three academic staff members and three students, advises the chancellor on licensing issues. The committee grew out of student protests in 1999 that demanded humane factory conditions.
The new proposal would require university licensees such as Nike and Reebok to buy at least 25 percent of their goods from union factories after the first year of implementation. The requirement would rise to 50 percent after two years and 75 percent after three years.
A second component of the recommendation would require the licensees to pay factories more per item so that workers could realistically demand living wages.
UW-Madison already requires companies to disclose their factory locations and to pay factory employees at least the minimum wage required by local law. The university is a member of the Worker Rights Consortium, a non- governmental organization created by colleges, including UW- Madison, to enforce a manufacturing code of conduct.
While those efforts have had some success, a stronger tool is needed, Feingold said.
"Before, we relied on the monitoring of factories to expose abuses," he said. "While that has had a lot of victories, it's not sustainable, and it's not getting to the root problem."
Only when workers are given a collective, democratic voice in their factories will abuses stop, said UW-Madison senior Liana Dalton, another student member of the labor committee. "We have to empower workers to be their own monitors," she said.
The proposal would help reduce a serious problem occurring in countries such as Cambodia and El Salvador, Dalton said. In those countries, factories where workers unionized have lost contracts to non- union factories that can offer lower prices, she said.
Fifty-four other U.S. colleges are studying the same union proposal, although none has yet acted officially, Feingold said. Student activists across the country hope that collective action by a significant portion of those colleges will create a market demand for union- produced apparel, he said.
Dennis Dresang, a UW- Madison political science professor and a faculty member of the labor committee, said unions have had a positive effect on economies and people's lives, often through a spillover effect of influencing laws and general business practices.
"I don't want UW-Madison to be No. 55 (in adopting the union proposal)," he said. "I want us to be No. 1."
More than 3,300 factories in 47 countries produce products with UW-Madison logos, according to the university. The university receives about $1 million in annual revenue from officially licensed products.
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